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The Rise of QAnon

How Conspiracy Theories Became Mainstream

Crazy QAnon Lady

A global child sex-trafficking ring run by a cabal of paedophiles, who are worshipping Satan. This is the focus of the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon-Follower believe and spread. According to QAnon “The Cabal”, also known as the “Deep State”, is a global elite controlling world governments, mainstream media, the entertainment industry as well as all other sectors, including finance and pharmaceuticals. Many Democratic politicians, liberal Hollywood Actors, and other high-profile members of our society are accused of being members of the “Deep State”, while Donald Trump as the first president ever is allegedly fighting against them.

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The “Pizzagate” Conspiracy Theory

In October 2016, WikiLeaks started publishing the John Podesta emails, a series of emails involving Hilary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Users on the far-right message board 4chan, who have previously used the term “cheese pizza” as code for “child pornography”, based on the initials “c.p.”, guessed that more code could be found within those emails, which resulted in a wild “translation” of harmless communications.

Supposed double meaning of food-related terms
Supposed double meaning of food-related terms

One particular email, originally discussing an Obama fundraising event at a pizzeria called ‘Comet Ping Pong’, in Washington D.C., was reinterpreted into a call for a sex-party involving children. This interpretation resulted in a storm of fake news under the Hashtag “#Pizzagate”, which were spread to more common social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.

Without any supporting evidence, on December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch entered the “Comet Ping Pong” pizzeria with a military-style assault rifle to investigate an unfounded online theory. The theory about the child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton still exists and forms the basis of QAnon, despite the fact that no children have been found.

How QAnon started

In October 2017, the post “HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run” appeared on the 4chan’s forum. A user, which, days later, revealed himself as “Q”, posted the message and, while HRC stands for Hillary Rodham Clinton, it was a start of a series of cryptic posts about a conspiracy within the U.S. government. The letter Q stands for a national security clearance level of the Department of Energy, a critical sensitive position the anonymous user claims to have. This clearance level supposedly gives the author access to classified information about an ongoing operation, led by President Donald J. Trump, with the goal to  “drain the swamp”, meaning to terminate the so-called “Deep State”, a global elite allegedly controlling world governments, mainstream media, the entertainment industry as well as all other sectors, including finance and pharmaceuticals.

The initial message was reposted on Reddit, appearing to a completely new community of conspiracy enthusiasts, which then took it to more mainstream social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook. Since then, Q regularly shares new information, regarding the ongoing operation against the “Deep State” in form of QDrops. Those short-messages are shared across the internet via various message-boards and QAnon-related websites (https://qalerts.app/). Those messages are often very cryptic and leave a lot of room for interpretation.

The Rise to Mainstream

Although conspiracy theories are not new, as they exist since as early as the Middle Ages, there is something special about the QAnon movement. It is a global phenomenon, attracting large numbers across the globe and there are many different factors contributing to its success, as elaborated below.

You do not need to believe everything

The core of the QAnon movement includes several different parts. Some people say that members of the “Deep State” are drinking the blood of children, others report that high-level officials are reptiles. People are accepted as part of the movement, even if they just believe part of the theory. Supporters and followers can also believe different theories concerning the same topic. As an example, take the COVID-19 pandemic. While many followers call it a hoax, others describe it as part of the overall plan to “drain the swamp”. Some supporters claim that lockdowns are necessary because it gives the so-called “patriots” time and freedom to remove high officials, whilst others call for a boycott of all COVID-19 restrictions.

QAnon delivers an answer for many conspiracy theories

From 9/11, the murder of John F. Kennedy, Chemtrails, to reptiles eating children. QAnon unites believers of all kinds of different theories, giving them a common enemy, an explanation as well as a hero and the light at the end of the tunnel. Every major, controversial event was either the work of the “Deep State” or part of the plan to destroy them and as mentioned before, even if certain theories cancel each other out, they are still valid for QAnon supporters.

They are not only giving an explanation for conspiracy theories but also for other events. The earthquakes which happened recently in Croatia were quickly the focus of different videos and posts claiming that the earthquakes were actually bombs, ordered by the POTUS himself, to attack important buildings of the “Deep State”. Other sources stated that these were attacks carried out by the “Deep State” itself, in order to hide their wrongdoing. Of course, both are valid.

It is a rewarding game

The cryptic nature of the QDrops leaves a big room for interpretations. Interpreting them and being able to be the first within your network to ‘solve’ the riddle gives a feeling of contributing to a greater cause. A feeling of being part of the solution. Those absurd interpretations are being spread very fast across multiple platforms, contributing to an even more rewarding feeling.

It is in the nature of people with such controversial thoughts and beliefs to always look for people with the same mindset. Own observations of various accounts showed an increase from 10 to 500+ likes per post within weeks. The observed development is always the same. People who play the game and share new information are developing into a form of leader, giving followers a “safe” space to discuss, while suppressing all other opinions. As an effect, leaders get more and more confirmation, strengthening their beliefs.

Conspiracy theories as a drug

Every conspiracy theory plays with our emotions and is driven by an, sometimes unknown, internal fear. Every shared video, every new piece of information, which “confirms” this fear is met with an “I knew it” moment, releasing dopamine. Followers are being hooked on a drug called “information” and left craving for their daily doses. They find easy explanations to their problems just one mouse click away and an illusion that everything is going to be better when they contribute to showing the “truth” to the general population.

Famous, elected Supporters

During the 2020 US-Elections several politicians running for congress shared QAnon-related material and two of whom were actually elected. Lauren Boeber, who appeared on an online show hosted by a QAnon-supporter, won in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who shared QAnon-connected hashtags as well as QAnon defending tweets, won in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District.

But support does not always have to mean endorsement or sharing. A big contributor to the rise of QAnon is Mr. Donald J. Trump himself. The fact that the President of the United States uses, as it seems, Twitter for most of his communications limits him to 280 characters for expressing his opinion. This limitation paired with the taken linguistic approach results in tweets which are the basis for more conspiracy theories and more QDrops. His tweet ending with “We will get through this together” caused an uprising belief that he was telling his followership that he is about “TO GET HER”. It was interpreted as a sign of Hillary Clinton being arrested.  The elected hero of QAnon did not deny any of those claims. Having a movement backed by famous and successful individuals encourages even more people to come forward.

Social Media, the Internet and the global trend of disinformation

Within the last months, several QAnon supporting websites popped up and started spreading false news, contributing to a global disinformation campaign. Every absurd claim can be “confirmed” when researched. It can also be very easily debunked, but independent media and fact-checkers are often stamped as “mainstream” and thus declared as non-valid within the QAnon movement.

Social Media has contributed its part to the success of QAnon by not containing the spread. Under the cover of free speech, contributors to the global phenomenon of disinformation were allowed to spread fake-news, reaching millions of people. After the FBI called QAnon a domestic terror thread, Facebook and Twitter started taking down user groups and individual accounts linked to spreading those conspiracy theories. A step in the right direction, that happened far too late.

Nowadays, the internal structure and origin of wild theories consist mainly of many telegram channels/groups. Telegram Messenger LLP, a company doing little to nothing in regards to regulating content on their platform, hit 400 million active users in April 2020. This represents an increase of 100 million active users per month to the last reported numbers in October 2019. A big surge, happening after Facebook started restricting QAnon-related groups.

Loneliness during a pandemic

As part of fighting the pandemic, people across the globe were forced to stay at home – alone, and some with more free time than before. COVID-19, a controversial topic providing much material for conspiracy theories itself, has drawn even more people to QAnon, especially in the US but also in European countries like Germany. For the case of the United States, this can be credited to a Government that downplayed the pandemic in the beginning. In Europe, leaders in Germany and Austria reacted rather quickly and, considering that there were few cases in the early days, with drastic measures. This resulted in a feeling that COVID is not dangerous and just another part of an overall plan.

But the pandemic also strengthened another movement. Members of Anti-Vaccination groups and supporters of the Big Pharma conspiracy theory joined QAnon, because the theories about the “Deep State”, or at least part of them, were confirming what they have been saying for years already. “Anti-Vaxxers” found a safe space and what they had to say was finally accepted by a larger community. The idea of vaccinations making the population sick just goes so well with the idea of a global conspiracy and an underground elite that is controlling everything.

Why should we care?

The recent event of a bombing in Nashville shows how conspiracy theories can affect the offline world. While not confirmed if true, there are currently investigations about whether the suspect was a firm believer of the 5G-theory, another core conspiracy theory shared by QAnon. From a 90-minute standoff with police officers in June 2018, to the killing of a Mob Boss in December 2019, there are several incidents not only tied to QAnon supporters but also motivated by conspiracy theories.

Even though their supposed leader and soon to be Ex-President lost the election, QAnon is here to stay. Currently fighting against the “rigged election”, a claim that has been debunked several times, supporters will continue to spread their wild theories.

 

Sources

New York Times, 2016. Dissecting the #PizzaGate Conspiracy Theories [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/10/business/media/pizzagate.html [Accessed 03 January 2020]

New York Times, 2020. What Happens When QAnon Seeps From the Web to the Offline World [online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/09/us/politics/qanon-trump-conspiracy-theory.html [Accessed 03 January 2020]

Rollingstone, 2020. Former QAnon Followers Explain What Drew Them In — And Got Them Out [online] Available at: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/ex-qanon-followers-cult-conspiracy-theory-pizzagate-1064076/ [Accessed 03 January 2020]

Media Matters, 2020. Here are the QAnon supporters running for Congress in 2020 [online] Available at: https://www.mediamatters.org/qanon-conspiracy-theory/here-are-qanon-supporters-running-congress-2020 [Accessed 03 January 2020]

The Guardian, 2020.  Nashville blast: officials identify Anthony Warner as the bomber [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/dec/27/nashville-blast-investigators-examine-5g-paranoia [Accessed 03 January 2020]

Techcrunch, 2020. Telegram hits 400M monthly active users [online] Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/24/telegram-hits-400-million-monthly-active-users/ [Accessed 05 January 2020]

Lion Hummer

Author: Lion Hummer

As part of his profession as an International Consultant for Digital Transformation, Lion spent the last 4 years traveling around the globe. During this time, he developed an urge to work against the global trend of disinformation. He is currently preparing himself for his MBA at the Warwick Business School.

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